Fossil vs. solar

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The fossil fuel industry has spewed quite a lot of propaganda against sustainable energy, targeting solar energy and wind power in particular; this is understandable, if less than ethical. What's less understandable is some of the howling lapses in logic which many people seem to accept unthinkingly.

The most obvious of these fall generally into the category of mismatched derivatives:

  • comparing the cost of capacity without taking into account that once solar capacity is built the energy is essentially free for the life of the hardware, while fossil power generation capacity requires the continuous mining of fuel to burn.
  • comparing the pollution from solar panel production with the pollution from mining and distribution, when said pollution is
    • (a) in the service of building out capacity (measured in watts) for solar, rather than energy (measured in watt-hours) for fossil
    • (b) safely contained (for US manufacture at least) in the case of solar, but often in the form of pipeline spills and drilling accidents for fossil.


Solar panel production in California created "46.5 million pounds of sludge and contaminated water from 2007 through the first half of 2011", but all of it was taken to containment sites (97% in-state).[1] Meanwhile, in just one of several pipeline breaks in April 2013, ExxonMobil leaked 80,000 gallons of oil into the wild[2] and power-washed it into a wetlands area[3].

Dilbit weighs somewhere around (8.3454 x 0.75 = ) 6.259 pounds per U.S. gallon, so that's about (80,000 x 6.259 = ) 500,000 pounds of oil, in just one of several incidents within a single week[4], released into the environment, versus 46,500,000 pounds of solar sludge over 3+ years, basically all of it safely contained.

Yes, the solar sludge figure just covers California -- but they are one of the major manufacturing centers for solar, and the Arkansas spill used in this comparison was just the tip of the oil-spill iceberg. Any fair comparison would also take into account the vast wasteland that is the Alberta Tar Sands, not to mention the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and other less-famous spills which have occurred since then... and the fact that even when oil makes it all the way to the point of use, burning it still adds pollution to the environment, while using solar panels does not.